Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees thinks that making Katharine Hepburn play a character named Bunny is like casting a proud lioness of the jungle as Lamb Chop. On the other hand, at least Spencer Tracy escapes the indignity of being addressed as "Cuddles."
A love triangle for the information age: man, woman, and computer.
In their eighth film together, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy prove again why they are known as one of the great film couples. This sparkling office comedy features some of their best work together—and, despite some dated elements in the depiction of computers, remains one of their most enduringly enjoyable films.
Facts of the Case
Who is this distracted, untidy figure wandering through the halls of the Federal Broadcasting Company with a measuring tape? Why, it's brilliant engineer and motion study expert Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), on a secret mission to computerize the company. By introducing an electronic brain known as EMERAC into the research department, he and the company president plan to bring the FBC into the modern age.
However, as far as the head of the research department is concerned, operations are already running just fine, thank you. Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) and her research workers (Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and Sue Randall) may not be as efficient as machines, but the combination of their sharp memories, experience, and research skills has seemed to work just fine up to now. A computer, they believe, will render them redundant, so the amiable Sumner becomes an enemy to their job security—even as he begins to impose himself oh so gently between Bunny and her executive boyfriend, Mike Cutler (Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?).
In many ways, Desk Set is my favorite Hepburn-Tracy team effort. Instead of following the pattern of so many of their films in forcing the Hepburn character to undergo a kind of ritual humiliation, it allows her to be unapologetically smart, capable, and independent. Films like Adam's Rib, celebrated by many as a depiction of an egalitarian relationship, make me cringe as they force Hepburn to enact lame-brain ideas and then punish her for them. Even her first and otherwise delightful collaboration with Tracy, Woman of the Year, "humanizes" the otherwise brilliant Hepburn character by showing us what a klutz she is in the kitchen, which Tracy gets to generously forgive. As Bunny, however, the great Kate holds her own. In one of the duo's best and most enjoyable scenes, she turns the tables on Sumner when he interrogates her with a series of brain teasers. He's mildly complacent, expecting her to lose face. Instead, with almost offhand ease, she trumps question after question. To his credit, Sumner, recovering from his bafflement, warms toward Bunny with new respect and admiration. It's the beginning of love. Even when the inevitable computer is installed and begins to do Bunny's job at a pace far faster than is possible for humans, Bunny retains her poise, her wry humor, and her assurance in her own skills—as well as her job.
Of course, Bunny can't be entirely in control of her life, or this wouldn't be a comedy. In fact, Bunny's Achilles heel is not professional, but personal. Like many another woman before and since, Bunny may be a whiz at her work, but she becomes a puddle of uncertainty when it comes to the man she loves. As her almost-fiancé, Gig Young as Mike is charming but self-absorbed. Adept at keeping Bunny hanging on without committing to anything serious, he knows that a big bunch of flowers can smooth her ruffled feathers when he cancels on her yet again. Although he recognizes her intelligence, he turns it to his own advantage by getting her to polish up a report he's written. Wisely, however, the movie refrains from making him a villain or a cad, instead letting Bunny and Sumner's enjoyment of each other's presence gradually ease Mike out of the forefront of Bunny's mind. Even the pivotal scene in which Mike discovers the bathrobe-clad Sumner and Bunny having an intimate supper in her apartment doesn't provide an easy way of removing him from the running. Here as throughout the film, the clever script by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (Nora's parents) avoids pat resolution of conflicts and allows the characters to determine the unfolding of the story. Desk Set definitely reveals by contrast how artificial and dumbed-down today's romantic comedies have become.
The delight of Desk Set exists so much in the justly famed Hepburn-Tracy chemistry, which absolutely sparkles here, that it would be easy to overlook the contributions of a strong supporting cast. Gig Young, as noted, strikes just the right tone as Mike, but perennial wisecracker Joan Blondell (Grease) is also a standout as Peg, the tart-tongued realist among the researchers. Mike may be able to string Bunny along with his smooth line, but Peg is one lady he's not fooling—and she doesn't hesitate to take Bunny to task for putting up with him. Sumner's sleek assistant Miss Warriner (Neva Patterson, An Affair to Remember) makes a late appearance in the film to fuss officiously over her "baby," EMERAC, and provide an effective foil for Bunny. Office gossip Smithers (Harry Ellerbe) acts as a catalyst and provides some broader comic moments. And for those who have wondered why Spencer Tracy is sometimes hailed as the greatest film actor who ever lived, his casual, improvisatory style here is powerful evidence. Tracy's onscreen persona is easygoing and unforced; whereas some star actors make sure we recognize how hard they're working, he makes it look easy. As the two leads, he and Hepburn have a natural rhythm and harmony that the film takes advantage of by giving them lots of long conversations together. To the credit of both the stars and the screenwriters, these longer scenes not only maintain our interest but represent the film's greatest strength.
I've been uniformly pleased with Fox's Studio Classics series, and Desk Set follows in the footsteps of previous releases in the series in its handsome presentation. The widescreen transfer finally lets us see the film in all its Cinemascope glory, with vivid, true colors that show off all that '50s studio gloss. The picture does have some flicker but otherwise looks excellent. Sound is likewise crisp and free of hiss. For those of us who have been getting by with a video copy, this release is news worth shouting from the rooftops. The extras aren't as bountiful, however, as those on other discs in this series. There's no biographical feature on either of its stars, which was a disappointment, and actress Neva Patterson is unaccountably absent from the feature commentary, even though she is listed as a contributor. Instead, actress Dina Merrill provides enjoyable anecdotes and reminiscences from this film and many others of her career, which alternate with formal, scripted readings from one John Lee, who demonstrates all the warm spontaneity of a BBC news correspondent. The two styles of commentary clash completely, and even the combination isn't sufficient to prevent lots of silences. Lee's commentary also deteriorates, starting with informative nuggets on the stars and the film but wandering into increasingly trivial territory, as when he informs us that the champagne the actors seem to be consuming was represented by (gasp!) a nonalcoholic stand-in beverage. Really, after about the first forty minutes, you can stop listening to the commentary unless you want to hear more about Merrill's varied experiences in the movie biz, since Lee's bits just get more and more obvious and irritating.
The film's original trailer, included among the extras, offers more proof of Hollywood's continuing effort to make Hepburn accessible (in this case, by portraying her in her drunk scene, another of the film's highlights). It also features a terrific morsel of dialogue that was evidently cut from the film and that I won't spoil for you. A series of stills from the film set includes candid shots of Hepburn lounging in her characteristic slacks. Some captions for the photos would have been welcome, since they feature many unfamiliar faces. There is a fun, very brief newsreel feature in which Hepburn's costumes are modeled in a fashion show, and trailers for several other films in the Studio Classics line round out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sooner or later the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" always comes up in discussions of film, and I'm going to invoke it here. Almost fifty years after Desk Set was made, its vision of computers can't help but seem somewhat absurd. It will be almost impossible for today's viewer not to poke holes in the film's logic and its representation of what computers can do (and how they do it).
Resist this urge. Remind yourself that in the 1950s the capacities of new-fledged computers still seemed infinite, that people like Bunny had every reason to fear that they could and would be replaced by machines. Desk Set, indeed, began life as a stage play that delved into the very real postwar fear of mechanization in the workplace. To respect the anxieties of Bunny and her coworkers, you must suspend your disbelief that a computer without internet access could do their job. It's a small concession to make, and the reward is great.
Spencer Tracy plays the bongo drums. Katharine Hepburn recites "Hiawatha." What more could a romantic comedy offer? For fans of the stars, this is a no-brainer; and for those who have become jaded with the uninspired rehashes that romantic comedies have become, Desk Set will show you the genre at its best. Fox has even given it to us at a laughably low price. For heaven's sake, why are you still reading this review? Go out and buy this disc, already!
All those responsible for the witty confection Desk Set are free to go, with the court's thanks. John Lee, however, is banned from film commentary until he has provided evidence of considerable improvement.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Actor Dina Merrill and Film Historian John Lee
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